Category: Books

ONE MORE DAY (Blog) Tour Stop!

I’m super excited about this.

A few months ago, not long after I signed with my agent, I bought and read Reaper by L.S. Murphy, one of my agent-sisters. We got to know each other via Twitter, met in real life, and have become (I think) pretty good friends.

So when she asked me if she could stop by for the (blog) tour of her latest work, a new anthology called One More Day, I immediately agreed.

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The premise of One More Day is pretty interesting: What if today never ended? What if tomorrow never came?

L.S. Murphy headlines the anthology with her contribution, “The 13th Month.” She answered a few questions for me to include in this stop of her blog tour.

5 Questions with L.S. Murphy

1. What was the spark of inspiration for “The 13th Month”?

Actually, Nixon drove the story. I had the theme and his character popped into my head instantly. Even though I had a vague idea of where I wanted the story to go, I let Nixon show me the way. It’s a rare moment where I didn’t plot out the entire thing from beginning to end.

2. Which character(s) most resemble you?

Nixon does a little. He’s a bit of a smart aleck.

3. If you could travel anywhere at any time, where and when would you go?

London during Victorian times. I’m simply fascinated with that time period. Actually, I’d go to London pretty much any time except The Blitz. 🙂

4. What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Never give up. If this is what you want to do, then keep striding toward that goal.

5. Finally, Beatles or Rolling Stones?

*snorts* Duh, Beatles.

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The Bechdel Test

The Rule: The Origin of the Bechdel Test

As I’ve been rereading WTRPCPSU during this revision process, I’ve been thinking a bit about the Bechdel Test.

If you’re not familiar with the Bechdel Test, it was based on a comic strip by Alison Bechdel nearly 30 years ago and has since been used to point out gender inequality in movies. Well, it began with movies, but it can just as easily be applied to television shows and literary works.

The criteria for passing the Bechdel Test is as follows:

There are at least two named female characters…

who talk to each other…

about something besides a man.

Now, I can’t speak for other women in this world, but I know that my real life would easily pass the Bechdel Test. Even if you discount the writing-centric conversations I have, I talk to my female friends about myriad topics ranging from politics to economics to petty gossip (I’ll admit to that) to sports to entertainment. Yes, we may talk about our husbands and our children, but those conversations don’t make up the bulk of our communication.

Since the main character of WTRPCPSU is a 15-year-old female, it should be a given that my novel would pass the Bechdel Test, right? Well, I’d hope so, but just because you have a female lead doesn’t mean you’d automatically pass. I mean, look at Pretty in Pink. I’ve watched that movie several dozen times, and I can’t think of a single conversation Andie has with her friends that don’t involve a guy. And that’s unfortunate.

(If anyone reading this disagrees or can prove me wrong, by the way, please let me know in the comments. I’d be happy to help myself to a heaping plate of crow if I’ve missed it.)

Well, I’m happy to report that WTRPCPSU passes the Bechdel Test. Despite the fact that it’s Teen Chick Lit (hey – I’m being honest), there are more than a handful of conversations among the girls that don’t involve a guy. (Of course, as Teen Chick Lit, there are plenty of conversations that discuss guys, too.) Moreover, I think I’ve done an adequate job of representing both genders, meaning that I include conversations between guys that discuss something other than girls.

That the Bechdel Test should be applied in reverse seems kind of unfair when you consider the initial purpose of the test, but I think it’s possible to swing too much in a single direction. And that’s part of the problem.

Gender equality is about equality. Female characters should get at least as much screen time as male characters. We absolutely need more strong female characters on the screen and in books who interact with each other and talk about real-life issues, not just boys. I’m not denying that. It happens in real life; it should happen in fictional works, too.

But I do worry, as a writer of a female-centric work, that I might not afford my male characters the same consideration that the Bechdel Test demands for female characters. It could be, as author Jeff Fecke suggests, that novels with female leading characters might not pass a Reverse Bechdel Test because the main character wouldn’t necessarily be privy to male conversation. (This would help explain why so many movies fail the Bechdel Test, if for no other reason than the main characters are often male.)

It’s a lot to consider, I’ve discovered, if an author wants to ensure gender equality in his work. But if you take the time to watch how people interact with each other on any given day, I think you’ll find that if you focus on portraying your characters in realistic situations as accurately as possible, you’ll inevitably pass the Bechdel Test – and its reverse – quite organically.

On voice

All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know. – Ernest Hemingway

Voice is one of those things that’s hard to define, but you can recognize a good voice when you read it. As such, I think it’s a hard concept to learn. I mean, the voice is either good or it’s not. But how do you really identify what makes a voice good? (Or worse, great?)

I was a voracious reader as a kid. I haven’t changed much as an adult. I never gave much thought to voice, to be truthful, until I started seriously pursuing the traditional publishing path for WTRPCPSU, and only then because article after article discussed the importance of voice. And then I started paying attention to the books I liked. What did I like about them? What drew me in and held my attention? It isn’t necessarily the story itself that compels me to finish reading. It’s that something, the way the story is told, that makes me want to keep reading.

It’s the author’s voice.

I read an interview with an author who talked about how she developed her voice. She used to mimic other writers she’d read, and as she expanded her reading library, she discovered other voices to mimic until she finally developed her own. I really wish I could remember who the author was and where I read the interview because it’s one I would love to share, if for no other reason than to stress the importance of reading to learn the writing craft.

A few years ago, my sister gave me a Kindle for Christmas. It was (and still is) one of the best presents I’ve ever received. I love that device, and I mean I truly love it. The very first book I read on it was Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, and I downloaded several dozen books within a week of receiving it. One of those was a novel I had wanted to read for some time now but had always intimidated me by its sheer size: Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

Before you think that I was only reading classics, I’ll have to interject that that definitely was not the case. But I mixed things up quite a bit. I read War and Peace, yes, but I also began Ally Carter’s Gallagher Girls series right after it. I mixed up the genres, authors, and time periods. I mixed up subject matter. I read both self-published and traditionally published work.

A crazy thing happens when you read all over the map like that: You start recognizing voices and identifying with them. You subconsciously make notes of what deliveries you liked and what you would do differently. You start to rewrite entire paragraphs while you read – and that is when you are establishing your voice.

I dare you to try it. Pick a book off the shelf (preferably one you know pretty well), turn to a random page, and rewrite a couple of (non-dialogue) paragraphs. Note how you might say things differently. Note how you might use a different vocabulary. Note how you may emphasize different things than the author did.

Those differences? Those make up your voice.

Me? I write the same way I talk. You can read this post and know that if you and I were having a conversation about voice, whatever I’d say would sound a lot like this post does.

That’s my voice.

When I’m writing business communications at work, I write the same way I talk. It’s a bit more formal, and I tend to use industry-specific terms, but whatever I would say in person sounds a lot like my emails.

That’s my voice.

But when I’m writing, I assume someone else’s identity, and I write the same way I imagine that character would talk.

Because that’s her voice.

Book of the Week: Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

It is no secret that I am not a Steinbeck fan. My earliest introduction to his work came in the sixth grade when Mrs. Rowley assigned us to read The Red Pony. At the time, I was already a fan of Edgar Allen Poe and reading everything I could find by Charles Dickens. Surely someone like Steinbeck would interest me, right?

Wrong. Oh, I was so very wrong. I didn’t care for The Red Pony. My mother (and sister) suggested I try Of Mice and Men, which I did like, but when I had to read The Grapes of Wrath a few years later, I realized that I would rather gouge my eyes out with a spoon than read it. I didn’t care that it won a Pulitzer. It was dry and dull and so incredibly boring.

Several weeks ago, I explained this to a woman in my writing group, and she asked if I had read Travels with Charley.

“No,” I answered truthfully. “I’d heard of it. Isn’t that the one that earned him the Nobel Prize?”

“Yes, I think so. It’s my favorite book of his. I have two copies of it. You can borrow one, if you’d like.”

And the following week, she slid Travels with Charley across the table to me.

Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

I approached Travels with Charley with an open mind. I’m much older than I was in high school, I reasoned, so I was certain it would hold my attention. After all, I’d read War and Peace and loved it. This was a 277-page memoir. How bad could it be?

Travels with Charley was a slow read. And in truth, I think it was designed to be. By Steinbeck’s own admission, Travels with Charley is a study of America at the end of 1960. It starts off well and has occasional moments that held my interest peppered throughout, but for the most part, I don’t know that it’s a book I would care to reread. His descriptions of the countryside and of the handful of people he writes of encountering are, of course, beautifully written, but he there were so many instances where it seemed he rambled more than I would have liked. I dozed off reading it more than a handful of times, and there were pages I had to reread because I got to the end of the page without knowing what it was I’d just read. But overall, my general feeling following Steinbeck on this cross-country journey seems to mirror the sentiments he expresses at the end of the book: general relief that the journey is over.

I don’t dare dismiss Travels with Charley outright, and not just because it earned the man a Nobel Prize in Literature. It’s an important literary work because it captures sentiments held so strongly in this country in the early ’60s. There were a number of thought-provoking passages that, if I was reading my own copy or reading it off my Kindle, I would have highlighted. And the fact that I read it slowly allowed for additional introspection.

It’s the fact that I felt compelled to discuss ideas within its pages that results in my rating of 3 stars out of 5. I liked it but wouldn’t necessarily pick it up for another read.

Book of the Week: The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger

I’m cheating a bit and posting this review a bit early. Technically, I should wait until Monday (since I’ve been trained in all my years in Corporate America that Monday is really the first day of the week, no matter what traditional calendars say), but I really needed to read a cute book to break my I’m-a-Terrible-Writer funk. (Reading books I don’t like does that to me.)

Today, I took my 5-year-old to Target after his guitar lesson. I needed to restock on his lunch box essentials (apparently, I keep putting in food he doesn’t like), and he had a great guitar lesson this morning, and as I had bribed him with offered an additional incentive to behave during his lesson, I agreed to purchase a toy for him, as well:

Today’s Bribe: A Skylanders Giants 3-Pack

Anyway, while at Target, I decided to treat myself to a few books, including a series I had been eyeing for some time, and I decided to sit down with the first book of the series this afternoon and, well, read. After all, I’m working on a Middle Grade concept and am trying to read more of that genre to get into the mindset of a 10-year-old boy (since I’ve never been one, and all).

I saw this book about a year ago and knew that I had to have it. I mean, it’s Star Wars! How can you possibly go wrong with anything that references arguably one of the greatest movie franchises ever? It was available in a softcover form at my son’s most recent book fair, but I didn’t buy it then because I really wanted it in a hardcover. (All the books I’ve bought with the intention of passing them down to my son are in hardcover.)

Here’s the gist of the story:

Dwight is quite possibly the weirdest kid in middle school, and in addition to a few other eccentricities, he walks around with a paper Yoda on his finger. It’s bit bizarre, yes, but Origami Yoda knows everything. He knows who likes whom, he knows about pop quizzes before the teacher knows, and he’s just all around, well, knowing. And The Strange Case of Origami Yoda is a collection of case studies that were compiled in an effort to prove – or disprove – Origami Yoda’s authenticity.

Each entry is told in three parts – four if you include the illustrations. It’s so cleverly done, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I had more than a few laugh-out-loud moments. And it was so cute!

It’s a quick read (it’s a Middle Grade novel, so I wasn’t expecting Tolstoy’s War and Peace), and thoroughly enjoyable.

Would I read it again? Most likely, mainly because I’ll be reading it with my son.

Would I recommend it to others? Yes, absolutely.

And for that, I happily give 5 out of 5 stars.

Book of the Week: Adventures in Funeral Crashing by Milda Harris

Let me preface this by sharing an idea  from yesterday’s post that I think bears repeating:

Reading is incredibly subjective.

There. I feel a bit better.

I do, however, feel the need to say that the opinions expressed in this review are my own, and my taste in books (or food or fashion or anything else, really) is just mine. So, take whatever I say in this post with a grain of salt, and if you happen to disagree, well, I’m all for open dialogue.

(Can you tell I’m not looking forward to this review?)

The book I chose for the week is Adventures in Funeral Crashing by Milda Harris. It has a Copyright date of 2010 and was self-published through Smashwords. It was a free book for my Kindle when I picked it up a few months ago (and it looks like it still is).

Adventures in Funeral Crashing by Milda Harris

I chose a self-pubbed book because I think they are just as relevant to the landscape as traditionally published books, and I will likely keep them in the mix of books that I review. After all, no one browses on Amazon or Barnes and Noble, looks at a book summary and says, “Hmm, this seems like a really good premise, but it’s self-published so I don’t think I’m going to buy it.” Quite the contrary. I firmly believe that if it’s a great story, it doesn’t matter how it got to the shelves, be they physical or digital.

And this is how I found Adventures in Funeral Crashing. I happened to stumble upon it while scrolling on Amazon.

Here’s the premise (directly from Amazon):

Sixteen year old Kait Lenox has a reputation as the weird girl in her high school, mostly because of her ex-best friend turned mean popular girl, Ariel, but maybe it has a little to do with the fact that Kait has a hobby crashing funerals. At one of these, Kait is outted by the most popular guy in school, Ethan Ripley. Yet, instead of humiliating her for all the world to see, he asks for her help, and Kait finds herself entangled in a murder mystery. Not only is the thrill of the mystery exciting, but more importantly Ethan knows her name! A little sleuthing is well worth that!

Interesting, right? And it was a free book, so my only investment would be time.

[sigh]

I wanted to love this book. I really truly wanted to love it. Or at least like it. And I picked it up with every expectation that I would not only finish it, I would devour it like I do so many books.

First, I love the title. It’s great! It’s a little bit dark, it’s quirky, and it sets the stage perfectly for a fun read. Once I cracked open the book booted up my Kindle to the first page and began reading, I was excited. Kait’s voice is funny and snarky and quirky and sweet, and I just liked her.

But then Ethan showed up, and everything I liked about Kait just kind of *poof!* went out the window.

When Ethan isn’t around, Kait is cool, strong, sure of herself. I mean, she makes it a point to remind us (several times) that even though her ex-bestie Ariel has turned into a total witch monster (my words, not Harris’s), she keeps her head down and refuses to let people know that Ariel’s taunts and rumors  bother her. So why should it matter so much what Ethan thinks of her? (Fine, he’s cute. But there’s more to a great guy than his looks and his social standing.)

As much as I loved Kait’s voice and liked her inner monologues, there was just so much of it. Moreover, it was so repetitive. Yes, I get it: She thinks Ethan is hot. And yes, I understand: The peanut butter banana smoothies at Wired are awesome. (Harris mentioned them five times in the first ten chapters and 14 times in the entire book. Senor Kindle counted for me.)

Harris employs great chapter transitions, though, which successfully kept me turning the pages until about Chapter 8, but by then, my interest started to wane. Even with a murderer on the loose and Really Hot Guy suddenly paying all kinds of attention to her, I wasn’t motivated to keep reading. I pressed on, only because I hate to leave books in the Did Not Finish pile, but by the middle of Chapter 10, I was dreading picking up the book again.

That’s how I knew it would be best if I didn’t finish it.

Here’s the thing…. I love to read. I love getting caught up in characters’ lives to the point that fiction and reality start to blur. I’m the kind of reader who finishes a book and is suddenly sad because the story has ended.

I didn’t feel that with Adventures in Funeral Crashing.

Yes, there’s a mystery. And yes, there’s that question of whether or not she’ll hook up with Ethan – and if when she does (because it’s kind of a given that she will), how will the rest of the school react? But I got as far as the middle of Chapter 10 and decided (a) I don’t care who did it, why they did it, or how they did it, and (b) I really don’t care what happens with Ethan, mainly because I’m not as smitten with him as Kait is.

So, it’s with a heavy heart that I award this review a DNF badge, as I didn’t finish it.

It’s gotten some good reviews on Goodreads (3.7 stars from 249 ratings), though, and some folks at Amazon seem to like it a whole lot (4.2 out of 5 stars with 50 ratings is nothing to sneeze at).

I’m just not among them.

(If you read Adventures in Funeral Crashing and felt differently about it, please let me know! Likewise, if you think The Grapes of Wrath is one of the greatest American literary works of the 20th century, please let me know that, too!)

Reader Dilemmas: When you really don’t want to finish the book

Objectively, Picasso and Dali were masters of their craft. Subjectively, I adore Picasso and wouldn’t hang a Dali in my house if you paid me. – Sara Megibow

I love this quote from Sara Megibow with the Nelson Literary Agency. I follow her on Twitter (of course I do) and have discovered that she posts some very insightful gems about publishing, writing, and agenting. (Translation: Go follow her. And if you should discover that she reps the kind of stuff you write, you might consider querying her.)

At any rate, I keep this quote top of mind when I’m reading. I don’t think everyone will like everything, and that’s okay. I could not stand reading The Grapes of Wrath, for example  – or almost anything by Steinbeck, for that matter – though I know lots of people who swear that it’s one of the greatest American novels of the twentieth century. It may very well be; I just didn’t care for it. At all.

(This also is why I’m not likely to ever win the National Book Award or the Pulitzer, since The Grapes of Wrath was a winner of both.)

I’m struggling through a quirky YA book right now, which I decided to make the book that I’ll review this week. A part of me feels like I need to finish it to say that I’ve read the whole thing, but I’m in the middle of Chapter 10 now, and I’m so tempted to just shelve it.

I don’t particularly care how this story ends (I couldn’t tell you what’s at stake), but I hate putting books in the Did Not Finish pile.

Is it ethical to write a review on a book that I don’t actually finish?